All the Melodrama, All at Once

Families have been sad for decades, guys.
Families have been sad for decades, guys. // Creative Commons

The most engaging scenes in “Generations” occur when two or three conversations happen at once — when two parents lie asleep on the couch while their children, still high, discuss their love lives in another room; or when a sister stands on one half of the stage in her wedding dress while her brother, crushed by his first attempt at coming out, screams out for her help on the other side.

The Yale Dramat play prides itself on this ambitious sort of crosscutting through time. Written by Jesse Schreck ’14 and directed by Zeke Blackwell ’13, the project is the first student-written production at the Dramat in two years and, considering this sort of institutional support, it aims high.

In his director’s note, Blackwell refers to the script as a “palimpsest,” an old manuscript that has been written over several times at several different moments in time. Schreck isolates several moments in the lives of the middle class Rothberg family — from prom and weddings, to trips to the hospital and the beginnings of divorce — and then runs them against each other.

This construct works most powerfully when it explores the relationship between older brother, Ben (David Martinez ’13), and younger sister, Emma (Kat Lau ’13), whose adolescences follow a roller coaster of alternating ups and downs. Ben seems to be the most put-together, but is closeted. Emma, on the other hand, has an abortion, but remains a source of youthful energy and unexpected wisdom. both struggle with their feelings for the same high school classmate,

Michael (Nathaniel Janis ’13). While their struggles are standard-issue adolescent trauma, Schreck’s script occasionally gives its actors ample breath- ing room in subtle scenes with emotional extremes that end up carrying more weight than the breakdowns themselves. An early scene, in which Emma makes fun of ben’s new boyfriend, a flautist, succeeds by letting Lau and Martinez play off each other comfortably.

Unfortunately, the scenes featuring the Rothberg parents, Sarah (Amy Napleton ’14), an overworked lawyer, and Greg (Kyle Clark ’13), a newspaper columnist, never reach this level of ease. The characters spend the play dealing with the now permanent fissures in their marriage, but are never given significant moments of action, even their eventual divorce is mentioned offhand. This is partially due to the writing, which reaches for intimacy, but stutters in the execution. The parents share an obsession with crosswords and a trip to an old lake house, but these inclusions feel more rote than real.

To that end, the play functions most strongly when Schreck portrays the parents’ lives as a background for the struggles of the children. The stage splits into two bedrooms and a living room and, often, separate scenes take place simultaneously in sepa- rate spaces. One conversation, usually between ben and Emma, tends to take the lead while the other, usually between their parents, runs counterpoint. At its most successful, this gives the play moments of clarity in which it can directly comment on what seems pressing in the moment, worries about prom or boy- friends, with what lasts, family ties.

“Generations” begins and ends with ben’s toast at Emma’s wedding. This bookending gives Schreck the necessary perspective to carry his characters through their lowest lows, including a suicide attempt, which is almost expected, given the intensity of the rest of the plot. The play itself centers on the influence of perspective, asking whether our darkest moments are still important when we know they will end.

At times, “Generations” becomes stuck in those standard, dark revelations — how hard it is to grow up, how easy it is to fall apart. ultimately, the play is saved by its own conceit. If run chronologically, the play would merely chronicle a struggle that has been seen several times. but, as the play cuts to and from the end result, the performers occasionally get the chance to look back on the chaos and ask, what matters now?

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